Not all kids are college bound after high school, but many are. For parents who are sending a child off to college for the first time, reactions are often a mixed bag of pride and worry as they contemplate where their “precious baby” is going to land! For the teenager, excitement, confusion and a lack of planning are usual. Oh! The fantasy of leaving childhood and becoming a bona-fide adult, the fantasy of going “far far” away from the shackles of home, and the list goes on and on. Becoming independent is an important developmental task.
The war stories and often successful battles won in these arenas tend to make the second child’s journey into college a cake walk for parents. Although we learn from the stories we share, are there perhaps a common path and some concrete tips for that first-time college sendoff?
If you begin the conversation with your teenager early enough, i.e. in 9th or 10th grade, then by their senior year most explosive issues can be sorted out and the conversation can become more mature and thoughtful. Usually these conflicts are about differing choices, or your child being influenced by people that you may not approve of and, of course, college cost. In time the teen may be able to see your point of view, and you theirs, which reduces disagreement.
It’s helpful to remember a scientifically-grounded piece of information: The teen brain is under construction. It is in the process of losing a huge number of cells and the focus of the reconstruction and sculpting is on strengthening the connections in the brain to make communication between cells efficient. As this process is going on, behavior and decision-making can be very erratic but they tend to stabilize between the ages of 20 and 25. The guiding role of parents is important during this phase. Teens are listening although they pretend they’re not!
As you and your child plan for college, specific considerations should be given to:
1. Educational environment
Know your child. Do they do better in a small or large class setting? Do they thrive with adult attention or can they can make independent decisions that lead to good social and academic outcomes? Are they organized? Are they self-starters or do they require active supervision?
Choosing a college that is in sync with your child’s personality and educational style will create optimum conditions for them to flourish. Talk with your teen about where they’d like to go and why. This can be a conversation as early as 9th grade. Doing this will give you a chance to research the school and discuss it with your teen so that both of you have enough time to share your opinions and come to a thoughtful decision.
2. Social and emotional development
How does your child deal with stress? How did they do with that overnight trip or summer camp? How do they deal with crises and how mature are they in handling difficult situations? How independent are they with ensuring proper nutrition and caring for their physical well-being?
Conversations about these topics should begin during the junior year of high school. Practicing independence at home should be encouraged as a trial run. See if they can rise to the challenge and find their “sea legs.”
3. Special needs related to education and mental health
Has your child been identified as having special needs in high school and received educational accommodations such as extended time or a quiet room for tests? Are they planning to have the same accommodations in college? Most colleges require a current or re-evaluation for providing educational accommodations.
Does your child have a need for mental health services? If so, do some research on how to let the college know about your child’s special needs. The size of the college and availability of counseling and special education services may impact the final choice. The quality of the counseling services and reputation are also important.
Once a school has been selected, consider getting on the waiting list for a first appointment with the counseling office. Begin to discuss your teen’s educational and mental health special needs and how those needs will be met. Think about whether follow-ups for medications should take place with their established doctors during school breaks, or if they will require a connection with a provider near campus for more regular checks.
A low-stress summer job preceding and during senior year will give your child a feel for adult responsibilities and challenges. It can provide insight into how they handle discipline and self-regulation and offer opportunities to teach self-reliance.
If possible, don’t wait until senior year to prepare for life after high school. The earlier you start the conversation, the better. Allow teens to make small mistakes so they can learn from them. Take advantage of the remaining time you have together to foster responsibility and independence.
Look for tips from our adolescent medicine team next month on how to stay healthy at college.
By Bela Sood, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist